Ancient civilization, Buddhism, Communism, a huge manufactured goods industry and 2008 Olympic Games are just a few things|
that spring to mind when anyone mentions China.
I visited China in the early autumn of 2005. As part of a photo group I was going to traverse the country east to west
following the ancient Silk Road route.
The following destinations lied ahead: Beijing, Xian, Lanzhou, Xia He, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar.
I was looking forward to seeing Beijing for many reasons. It was the city that was home to a number of dynasties of Chinese emperors.
They resided in the Forbidden City which was for centuries closed to commoners and foreigners. I was also interested in
the ruins of the Great Wall and the famous Tiananmen Square that made the headlines. In 1989 the Chinese government brutally
put down student protests.
The word Beijing literally means the Northern Capital. The city is a home to around 17 million people and according to
Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing) is the second largest city in China after Shanghai.
As many foreigners do, I had learnt at least 2 expressions before coming to China: how to say hello and thank you.
I think it is important to know a few words showing your respect to the country and its people.
While walking the streets in the centre of Beijing I was expecting to see crowds of people. China has the largest population
in the world of over 1 billion people. However, the streets looked moderately populated with only the congested roads giving
a clue to the population's huge size.
The centre of Beijing is well kept and reminded me of a European city with its heavy stone-cladded architecture which I suspect
became prevalent since China's change to Communism. It looked very similar to the buildings built during the Soviet era in former
USSR with no hint of the Asian traditional styles.
My arrival to the Tiananmen Square was very memorable. Coming out from a passage in a wall I was suddenly standing in front of
the huge square. Looking behind me there was a giant portrait of Mao Dze Dun with a military guard beside it. And in front of me
there were tall masts topped with the red Chinese flags waving in the sun. There was a police presence in the square. However,
none of them looked threatening. As a matter of fact, the police always acted friendly towards the foreigners during my stay in China.
The square presented a lot of photographic opportunities. These ranged from military guard and police officers to the emblems and
signs of the modern China.
As part of our daily excursions we visited parks and gardens of the city. There were a lot of pleasant surprises. Firstly, I could
see how the Chinese spend their pastime. In the clearings of the parks we could see people exercising in the traditional styles,
often with the various weapons such as swords or dancing in pairs to a ballroom tune. Others were found playing traditional games,
cards and chess. Some played traditional musical instruments. The atmosphere was of calm and happiness. That was my very first
impression of China which I hope I have accurately documented with my camera.
A visit to Forbidden City was also interesting. The area is very large. It has been carefully planned. In order to see an emperor,
a visitor had to pass many gates. Only high-ranking officials and foreign guests ever made it past the last gate. It is a challenge
to make your photo unique while visiting such places as it is highly visited by tourists and over-photographed.
The last place to see in Beijing was the Summer Palace. As the name suggests it was the summer residence of the China emperors.
It has beautiful gardens and was an off-limit area to the commoners and foreigners for many centuries. It is located on the outskirts
of Beijing on the banks of a beautiful Kunming lake.
The Silk Road - the adventure began!
First destination was the city of Xian. Before Beijing became the capital Xian was one of four capitals in China. It is located in
a central part of China south of Beijing. The city is famous for its Terracotta Army discovered by the farmers late in the 20th century.
We visited this huge open display. It is truly remarkable. Besides warriors there are also full-size terracotta horses and carriages.
The subjects were difficult to photograph as the display is undercover and the artificial lights were installed randomly and not always
next to the best exhibits.
The history of China started to emerge during our visit to Wild Goose pagoda, towers and squares of Xian. It was a pleasant change from
the busy streets of Xian.
China has a large Muslim population. Its actual size is still a point of contention and is estimated to be between 100 and 300 million people.
Visiting the Muslim Quarter in Xian was a real treat. You are suddenly submerge in a totally different atmosphere, as thought you are going
back in time. Examples of this are traditional dishes being cooked on the sides of the street and the peculiar dresses of the men and women.
All of these combined creates an amazing experience. The Muslims in this part of China are primary Han Chinese people who accepted Islam many
centuries ago and now are called Hui. The area presented a huge number of photo opportunities showing local people at work and play.
The next destination was Lanzhou. The most memorable part of this place was traveling by boat along the Yellow River to Binglingsi Caves.
These caves contain the remains of the ancient Buddhist culture in China. This might be especially interesting to people who want to
photograph the history of Buddhism.
The other unusual thing we encountered was an ancient Chinese way of crossing the rivers using a floatation device made of inflated
Five of us braved the rapids of the Yellow River on a tiny raft made of 9 skins. At one point, when a motorboat appeared in close proximity,
I thought that I was going to end up in the water along with all my photo-gear. Luckily, the boat passed at a distance.
Later, we've arrived to Jiayunguan where we climbed the ancient remains of the Great Wall and visited the frontier fortress. The solid
fortifications, with traditionally Chinese features, contrasted against the late afternoon sky and the sunrays highlighted the yellow
mortar in the walls. We all took advantage of this unique photographic opportunity.
The road to Dunhuang went through the desert. Occasionally, along the lonely landscape, the wind turbines appeared at a distance. Our final
destination was the so called 'Singing Sand Mountains' dunes. These spectacular naturally occurring sand hills have suddenly appeared behind
the entry gates. This was a sight that simply took my breath away. At a distance a small caravan of camels appeared, being led by a small
figure of a man. Picture perfect! My hand quickly had reached for the tripod and my camera. The rest was history.
Following destination was Turpan, which means 'the lowest place' in the Uygur language. Apparently, Turpan is the city with the lowest
elevation in China.
Turpan has mostly a Muslim population and is a very interesting place to visit. You can observe people living in
a traditional way, using primitive tools as they go about their daily lives.
Moving further north-west we had finally arrived to Urumqi which is a capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Being a major hub
on a Silk Road for many centuries, it was a stopover for many Muslim traders traveling along the route. Over the years various Muslim
minorities like Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Tajik and Uzbek have settled here. In recent decades the Chinese government has encouraged Han Chinese
to move into these areas. This has caused the Muslim minorities of Urumqi to become smaller as a percentage of the overall population.
The final destination of the trip was Kashgar. The places to see and experience here are the markets. The animal market is especially
interesting. You can observe people trading sheep, goats, cows and horses. Horses are often taken for a "test drive". The markets there
are typically Asian in its atmosphere. Some fantastic bargaining scenes formed part of my collection of photos that you can see on the website.
The highlight of my visit was at the end, when we had an out of Kashgar excursion to the Heavenly Lake (Tianchi Lake) in the mountains.
Surrounded by snowy peaks it is absolutely beautiful. On the sides of the lake Kazakhs live in their traditional yurts. At times you can
see horse riders passing in a distance. Sometimes they would stop and offer us to join them - for a fee of course.
There were opportunities to take great landscape shots. I've discovered that you can produce some great landscape shots with the telephoto
rather than a wide-angle lens.
My overall impression of China is that it is a very diverse country with lots of natural beauty in its culture, landscapes and people.
And there is much more to it than the commonly known facts about history, religion, political directions, ruling party and its "made in China"